- Editor’s Introduction
From time to time, scholarly journals may depart from their standard format of presenting articles involving new research in order to focus their attention on new methodologies, questions or debates currently animating their field.1 This issue of American Jewish History follows that route. Our contributors each participated in a roundtable at the 2012 Scholars Conference sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History in New York, where they discussed how our field has informed their work as social scientists. Focused on the theme “Beyond Boundaries: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studying American Jews” the conference brought together a broad range of scholars engaged in studying American Jewry, and it produced an intellectually exciting event. We are fortunate that the participants in the conference roundtable, Ethnographers and History, created a written version of their discussion to share with AJH readers.
We begin with the thoughts of Riv-Ellen Prell, who chaired the roundtable. She explains that while the panel members—herself included—“hail from different disciplines: anthropology, folklore, sociology, and linguistics,” they share an “abiding interest in grounding [their] . . . studies in their deep and complex historical roots.” She helps us to understand the history of social scientists’ interest in interdisciplinary work with history and also the particular usefulness of this kind of work to those engaged in Jewish studies.
Ayala Fader, a cultural and linguistic anthropologist, explains how important the knowledge of historical context is to her own research into the lives of Orthodox and Hasidic girls in Brooklyn and also into the Occupy Wall Street movement. Fader has found a fruitful way of bringing together historical knowledge and research conducted largely by observing her subjects and paying close attention to their historical memories. Fader also observes ongoing changes in the historical contexts of both of the groups she studies, as well as to such changes in her own life. As she notes, “Histories—the unwritten, the remembered and the more authoritative—are critical for understanding the dynamics of social reproduction and change.”
Chava Weissler, a folklorist, studies “the expressive culture—rituals, prayers, music and crafts—of ordinary . . . Jews.” Her work has encompassed the study of twentieth-century havurot (prayer groups), [End Page vii] the prayers of eighteenth-century Jewish women in Central and Eastern Europe, and, currently, the contemporary initiative known as ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Her work shows how the language and images of Jewish piety have been used by different Jewish subgroups living in different eras. At the same time, their expressive culture reflects their broader historical contexts. Aware of the historical and linguistic factors that create the subjects she studies, she also addresses the challenge of studying works by actors who themselves were/are “often written out of history—Hasidim, women, youth, etc.” Weissler finds that her work carries with it a political assertion that her subjects are worthy objects for study. Thus, her work is embedded in the changes occurring both inside and outside the academy.
Finally, ethnographer Shaul Kelner explains that his study of the program called Taglit-Birthright Israel, the “state-sponsored tours that have brought more than 300,000 Diaspora Jews to Israel since 1999,” began when he read a 1945 “manifesto” that touted the importance of hiking through the land in order to develop a Zionist consciousness and commitment. Kelner knew that this perspective was widely shared among Zionist educators. Yet, he points out, educators alone could not have created the tourism phenomenon that is Birthright Israel. It is made possible only by “the political, economic, organizational, conceptual and technological resources of the modern age.” As he conducted extensive ethnographic work with the young participants on the tours, Kelner recognized that a full understanding of the impact of Birthright Israel required that he pay serious attention to the tours’ broader historical context.
Together, these pieces offer a window into new trends in interdisciplinary work on Jews in America, and they show us the different ways in which historical knowledge can be illuminating for scholars working in the social sciences. [End Page viii]
1. See, for example, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 81, no. 3...